Emotional Eating

Introduction

Emotional eating is one of the principal competing motivations that can intrude on your energy for weight management.  It also is perhaps the most universally recognized.  Prospective patients attending our NCWW information sessions often identify emotional eating as their biggest obstacle when it comes to weight management.  It certainly can be. 

Emotional eating is not necessarily psycho-pathological.  Please appreciate this fact.  From the very earliest moments of your life, it is likely that you were held and rocked and nursed at the same time - establishing an absolutely bedrock association between eating and being soothed, loved and protected.  And from that point forward, you likely lived in a world where eating was part of celebrating, part of ceremony, part of belonging, part of communion. It is also likely that there were even times when you were upset, when someone would suggest that eating would help you feel better. All of us have this foundation, and it is because of this that virtually everyone at times eats emotionally. We emotionally eat because of what we learned in these experiences. We also eat emotionally because it works. Emotional eating does indeed often make you feel better.  As you will surely hear from our patients in some of your NCWW groups, eating works very, very well at what it does. That is why it is so hard to manage.

For a quick look at how emotional eating works, please begin your reading with  TYPES OF EMOTIONAL EATING .docxIt's a quick little thing I wrote as a synthesis of the types and functions of emotional eating.  I'm sure you will quickly agree that eating serves quite a number of psychological functions for you - most of which are in the arena of emotion regulation.  Eating sometimes helps you regulate your emotional experience by enhancing it.  Other times, it regulates by reducing the level of intensity of something you are feeling.  For many, emotional eating actually completely buries or overrides your awareness of being upset.  It is an exceedingly powerful coping mechanism that often sits at the very top of your most relied on coping strategies.  It is because of this that emotional eating is so difficult to grab hold of and change. But grabbing hold of it is precisely our aim.  Please read on.

But first:

Dr. Roger Gould's book and extensive website, Shrink Yourself, advertises that his program will help you end your emotional eating (www.shrinkyourself.com). Some of the tools and exercises on his website may be helpful to you - try them - but please understand that his suggestion that you can and should break free of your emotional eating is simply misguided. My experience is that nobody can end their emotional eating. Emotional regulation by eating is frankly too deep seated to completely resolve. You simply can't do it. When you consider how well it works in certain instances, I would further argue that even if you could do it, emotional eating is something you shouldn't completely remove from your coping repertoire. There are times when it is the best choice for what to do.  So please don't even aim for putting an end to emotional eating.  Instead, I want you to approach our topic with an aim to take charge of your use of this mechanism - to manage your emotional eating in ways and instances where it makes sense to do that. This will be best for your weight management and for your emotional health.

There are two important reasons to take up the systematic management of your emotional eating. 

The first was already presented above. Unchecked emotional eating is one of the principal competing motivations that can override your energy for weight management. As you have seen in our work on motivation, urgency of the need, importance of the need, and efficacy are the factors that influence motivation selection when there are competing motivations.  And unchecked, urgency is king - we generally direct our energy most of all to what is most urgent.  In our context, when it comes to instances where the motivation to manage your emotions competes with the motivation to manage your weight, the demand for emotion regulation generally calls out with urgency while the demand for weight management is general a more distal thing. Since the returns on emotional eating are immediate, you have a situation where the urgency factor leads to emotional eating because you need to cope right now!  In the face of that, what often happens is you permit the emotional eating for now, with a sense that you can work on weight management a little later - like on Monday (if you are still struggling with perfectionism).  That is likely how it is for you.  It is this way for most people.  So what to do? In my experience, the most fruitful approach to a healthy management of emotional eating begins with being systematic.

The second reason to engage in a systematic management of emotional eating is something I want you to find really intriguing.  It is the real selling point. While not all emotional eating is psycho-pathological, when it comes to the healthiest emotional management, eating is often a sub-optimal choice. Please, please note this.  This is super, super important. The wonderful truth is that when it comes to emotional management, eating is often not the best thing to do.  You do it because it is your go-to, often telling yourself it is the easiest thing to do. Further, many people say they use eating because it is reliable - "food never lets me down."  But please consider this:  If we are trying to reduce the usage of a coping mechanism that is such a deep seated and long standing thing - with features of being easy and reliable and quick-acting - the only reason to believe you would ever turn to something else would be if that something else actually works better than the eating.  And I am saying that the wonderful truth is that in many cases, there really is something better to do than eat - there really are other approaches to emotion regulation that will result in better coping and which are not fattening!  That's the selling point.

How do you distinguish situations where emotional eating is a good choice from situations where it is not? My answer is by being systematic in your management.

What I aim to do in our work on emotional eating is to help you see that except in the two cases of eating for emotional enhancement and eating for emotional expression, the achievement of emotion regulation by eating is arrived at via avoidance - through compulsive distraction, suppression, denial and dissociation.  This is ok coping in situations where you simply have to survive an emotional experience. We will talk about this. These circumstances are emotional equivalents to something like having to manage the pain of a surgery.  You need the surgery and yet surgery is very painful. In this instance it makes sense to medicate and numb the emotional signal to remove yourself from the situation (pain is that signal) because the signal doesn't fit the situation and so the feeling is the problem. Emotional eating is good for that. It helps you ignore unhelpful emotional signals.  But avoidance or distraction from what you feel is truly problematic in other situations - in situations where your upset usefully calls for your attention.  If you are walking along the edge of a cliff, feeling a degree of fear helps you be careful. Eating away awareness of the danger (signaled by fear), would leave you dangerously at risk of not being protectively careful.  The same is true for many interpersonal phenomena.  If you are alone and unhappy about it - to take a common emotional eating trigger - the feeling of loneliness is a signal to you that you don't like being alone and that you should do something about your social circumstance.  To eat away awareness of the feeling helps you feel better rather immediately, but it removes the impetus to address your lonely circumstance. It is psycho-pathological because it results in bad coping.  Here you eat away the feeling of loneliness rather than addressing the problem.  Your loneliness continues and triggers more eating.  This sort of emotional eating will be our target. I want to help you learn to embrace, not remove, your connection with bad feelings which should signal you to pay attention to what is bothering you.  We will do this systematically.

A Sustainable Approach to the Management of Emotional Eating

Adding up all that is above, I hope you will agree:

1. It is important to explore this topic of emotional eating.
2. It doesn't make sense to try to do away with all emotional eating. If you replace emotional eating with mechanisms that do not work as well, there is no reason to think you will sustain this.  Your change will be only temporary.
3. It does make sense to work toward a heightened awareness of your emotional eating.  With awareness as a foundation, you can learn to identify instances where it will be better to manage in a different way than emotional eating. This is an approach you can anticipate will  be sustainable.  If we build and refine your approach to emotional management so that you are coping better than before, there is good reason to believe this is something you can sustain and will sustain - because it works better. 

What do I mean by systematic management? 

It begins with paying attention to your urges to eat.  This sounds easy, but many people find it difficult - even counter intuitive.  People with a history of many diets, for example, often build a practice of focusing on the diet and trying to ignore urges to eat that would take you off the diet. Their experience has been that if you pay attention to these unwanted urges, you are more likely to eat. In our case, I am not suggesting that you plunge into a focus on what you want to eat and how good it would be to eat.  Instead...

Pay attention to your urge to eat with the question "Why do I want to eat right now?"  This, too, sounds pretty easy. But many people find real difficulty with truly answering the question. For detailed help with that, I suggest using the Eating Impulse Analyzer:  EIA Paper Q 2015.doc  It will guide you through a very thorough process of considering the urge. Note that only some eating urges connect with emotional eating. Taking up the use of the analyzer will help you recognize when an urge to eat is for emotional reasons and when an urge to eat is triggered by other factors.  Please note that as you use the analyzer, you will learn to custom-abbreviate it for your purposes and your circumstances.  It will likely take you a great deal of time in the beginning, but will take less and less time the more you use it.

Once you have identified an impulse is for emotional eating, you then need to process the emotion.  For that, I recommend the guidance of my A Cognitive Model for Processing Emotions 2010.doc  This will take you through a process of considering the feeling with an eye to action.

There are three elements in the systematic management of emotions:  emotional recognition;  emotional modulation; and emotional processing.  We will focus on each of these.

Below and on the sub-page "Emotion Regulation" you will find quite a range of literature on this topic.  Sift through them and have a look at what interests you.

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